The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: Metreon, SF

I enjoyed The Royal Tennenbaums, though in retrospect, it was a little “precious.”

Rushmore, I thought was pretty brilliant. So, I anticipated that Tennenbaums would be quite good, too.

And it certainly is a film cut from a similar cloth. The narrative presentation and pacing ring a similar bell, while the characters are clearly the same sort of imperfect geniuses that amuse and create in this fantastic, Salinger-esque universe of Anderson’s. Gwynneth Paltrow’s character has the same sort of knack for impressive theatrical adaptation at a tender age as the lead character in the earlier film.

The film has a great visual style, at times, striking and slick, while at others it looks like a student film. It’s mise en scene bears a strong influence on its personality.

The narrative follows an entire extended family and is, in that sense, a classic ensemble picture, revolving around Gene Hackman’s lead as the “Royal Tennenbaum” himself. And the cast is good: Ben Stiller, Angelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, all put in good performances. The characters feel developed in that they all have elaborate “back stories” that we are told, often in detail, but they are so “presented” to us that there is almost a feeling of detachment toward them.

The film is genuinely funny at times, both situationally and visually. It’s another film that I expect that future viewings may well offer more fuller enjoyment and understanding.

Blow

Blow (2001) movie poster

dir. Ted Demme (2001)

This film, which turned out to be Ted Demme’s (1963-2002) last, Blow, proved to be a pretty decent mainstream Hollywood bio-pic. Its subject is George Jung, “the man who established the American cocaine market in the 1970’s”.

The film was not really anything overly special, but none too shabby, either.

Demme envisions Jung’s life as the classic American success story/tragedy, an innovative businessman who discovers a new market, has to buck the system to make his business flourish, and ultimately gets rich. Jung is a sympathetic character for Demme, despite the fact that he is claiming to have essentially ignited the drug trade into the massive “illegal” industry that it became. It’s a stark and interesting contrast with Traffic (2000), Hollywood’s big “drug” film from the previous year, which was much more centered on the “problems” of drugs. Blow pretty much glamorizes Jung and his lifestyle, particularly in its initial splash, and maybe Demme saves his harshest criticism of Jung for his fading lack of fashion sense as he enters the late 80’s and middle age.

Johnny Depp is good as Jung. As his empire unravels due to betrayals and arrests, Demme never casts a negative light on his actions or motivations. In fact, in his final drug bust, he is set up by former friends who ultimately sympathize with him, feeling guilty for stabbing him in the back. And his motivation for getting in on the final scheme is to get enough money together to take care of his daughter and start a new life. He is portrayed as a family man, almost all-American, not a criminal.

In fact, Jung’s relationship with his father is classic Hollywood stuff, boy and his dad, right out of the late fifties/early sixties (perhaps not ironically, the period in which the boyhood scenes flash back to). Ray Liotta plays Jung’s father, who never judges him for his choices. He claims not to understand Jung’s career, but admires his son’s success, due in part to his own failures to eke out a living for his family. Liotta’s character is highly sympathetic and thusly, his compassionate view of his son is shared with the audience.

It’s melodrama with a coke straw.

The film features an good performance by Paul Reubens as drug-dealing hair salon queen and a dull performance by Penelope Cruz as a Columbian trophy wife, who is humanized only after she has crashed and burned and morphed into a typical suburban housewife.

The film is fairly well-made and entertaining, but gains its most thought-provoking aspects from its ironic use of mainstream Hollywood narrative and style to idealize a person whose lifestyle is clearly counterposed to mainstream American ideals. In that sense, this film is almost radical and definitely partially subversive.

Interesting.

Bridget Jones’ Diary

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Sharon Maguire

Recommended to me by a litany of people, I had unfortunately concocted some expectations here. Word of mouth is the best arbiter for me, something I more inherently trust. But this time, it didn’t add up. Eleanor liked it, though.

It was only half-bad. I mean, I thought that Renee Zellwegger was pretty good. And I thought that Hugh Grant made a more interesting bad guy, even though he was only half-bad.

It just wasn’t all that funny. And I think it was supposed to be.

There was this weird little Pride and Prejudice undertone, what with the male lead being called Darcy and all, but it was pretty half-assed, too.

for what it’s worth, most people I know that have seen it, liked it. Pretty well. Maybe I am the only one. Maybe I saw it on a night when my sense of humor was hard to please.

Who knows?

Brother

Brother (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Kitano Takeshi

I love Takeshi Kitano.

The man is a genius. He is a great screen presence, like a small, bemused, Japanese “Man With No Name,” a la Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western film persona. He’s always on the verge of laughter or violence, yet he is almost always expressionless. One of those faces that it’s impossible not to project upon, yet impossible to comprehend.

As a director, I personally think that some of his films are brilliant, particularly Sonatine (1993), another film about yakuza who are taken out of their element. However, Sonatine‘s brilliance is not matched here, even though some similar ground is tread and like metaphors abound.

In Brother, Kitano’s character escapes from Japan, following a change in mafia family loyalty by his best friend. He winds up in L.A. with his half-brother who is a small time drug dealer on the fringe of the American mafia with his multi-cultural gang, of which, Omar Epps is a primary figure. Kitano winds up taking charge of thier operation and starts gunning for the top.

It’s certainly an area full of potential, the culture clash of the two strong forms of mafia is set against the personal culture clash between Kitano and the American culture, which tends to underestimate him.

The strongest moments occur during sequences in which Kitano and Epps are playing games with one another, Chinese checkers, simple dice games. The best moment occurs during a basketball game in which Kitano’s aide from Japan tries to play, but is not allowed to play.

Escape From New York

Escape from New York (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. John Carpenter

The thing about cable is the randomness of what is being shown. It’s always a crapshoot, usually offering up, just plain crap. This was a rare exception, a film that I liked that was coming on at a time that I could watch it. At 99 minutes, it’s a pretty tight little thrill ride.

The late-Seventies and early Eighties were a good time for low-budget science fiction/horror films, and at some point, John Carpenter had a pretty good grasp on how to make them. It seems like he’s been trying to regain his hand at it ever since he tried going “mainstream” with 1984’s Starman.

A midnight movie classic from its initial release, this film seems to have disappeared a bit in recent years. Carpenter made several films with Kurt Russell, the best of which is probably his gory remake of the classic Howard Hawks’ sci-fi flick, The Thing (1982). He also re-teemed up with Russell in 1996 to make a truly awful sequel, Escape From L.A., which missed the mark so incredibly. Luckily, the original still shines with its low-budget coolness.

Now, this is a film that I have seen several times, and actually, after re-discovering The Thing a couple years ago, I wound up renting Escape From New York at the time. So, in reality, it hadn’t been all that long since I had seen it…maybe a couple of years. So, this time around, the thing that stuck out the most was the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

A lot of movies feature the NY skyline and almost any that feature the WTC in any significance are now documents of the structures that no longer exist, as much as they are films…or at least for a while, that is perhaps how they will be seen. For this film, Russell’s Snake Plisskin lands his glider on top of one of the towers in order to infiltrate the world of Manhattan, a penal colony that reeks of anarchy, and what was, no doubt, in 1981, a humorous commentary on life in the city.

I suppose another irony would perhaps be the new “kinder, gentler, Giulianni-ier” New York that has taken place of this rather bleak, though comical view of “The Big Apple.”

Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton show up in notable supporting roles.